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  • Slave Brands or Cicatrices? Writing on Aboriginal Skin in Tom Petrie's Reminiscences of Early Queensland
  • Penny Van Toorn (bio)

Cutting Into the Skin

In 1862, Tom Petrie, the second son in Queensland's first family of free settlers, set out from his homestead at The Pine, sixteen miles north of what is now the city of Brisbane, on a timber getting expedition. He took with him ten Aboriginal men, some accompanied by their wives, and picked up along the way an additional fifteen men from Bribie Island, four of whom were known "murderers of white men."1 During this first of many anticipated timber getting expeditions, the twenty-five Aboriginal men asked Tom Petrie to cut into their arms the letter "P" enclosed in a circle. This encircled P was widely known as Tom Petrie's brand. Tom's daughter, Constance Campbell Petrie, who committed her father's memories to paper, recounts the story of the "branding" as follows in the 1932 edition of Tom Petrie's Reminiscences:

One Sunday the blacks got talking of getting branded as the cedar logs were with a P [inside a circle], so that it would be known to whom they belonged. Their white friend [Tom Petrie] heard the remarks passed—one thought it would be too sore to be branded like a bullock, and another reckoned it best to get the P cut on their arms, and in the end this idea was carried. So going up to their master they said to him, "We want you to cut a mark like that on the logs, on our arms; so that when we go to Brisbane, every one will know we belong to you." Father said no, that he would just mark the brand, and they could do the cutting themselves; but this did not please them, and he had perforce to fall in with their suggestions.

He started to draw the brand on the arm of one fellow with a small sharp-pointed stick like a pencil, and this left a white mark on the dark skin. They then gave him a prepared piece of glass, and he commenced to cut with this, but the [End Page 223] blood came, he felt turned, and his hand shook. However, they asked him to cut deeper, so after one was finished, he didn't care any more, but went ahead and did the whole twenty-five of them. They were delighted, and as proud as possible; and went off and got some of the outer bark-chips from a bloodwood sapling, which they burned in the fire, and then rubbing the burnt part up in their hands, it became a fine powder called "kurrum," which they rubbed into the brand. (This is how charcoal was prepared for wounds.) In a week their arms were healed, and the brand had risen up, showing a splendid P.

The last of these twenty-five blacks (King Sandy) died at Wynnum ("Winnam," meaning bread-fruit) in May, 1900. A little before his death the writer got him to show her his arm, and the mark was still there, and he proud of it even then.

Father frequently visited the locality again in quest of cedar timber. . . . The blacks worked splendidly. They did all the work in making the roadway and getting the logs into the water.


How should this instance of marking Aboriginal bodies be understood? Foucault has argued that "the question of writing and the self must be posed in terms of the technical and material framework within which these new alpha betically written selves came into being" (363). This maxim is pertinent in studies of the manifold cultures of life writing that emerged at the edges of Europe's modern empires. In frontier contact zones, new inscriptions of selfhood took shape on both sides of the cultural divide, as European practices of literacy became embedded in the material circumstances of colonial life, while Indigenous societies integrated alphabetic characters into their own graphic traditions, including those "techniques of the self" that involved making meaningful marks on their bodies.

Here I examine the relationship between two very different material forms of alphabetic self-representation. One...


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